Keelung, Taiwan’s second largest seaport, is not to be called ‘picturesque’ in any travel guide book. On a usual day, about the only colors seen are in the rainbow-like reflections of the diesel spills floating in the port’s water. Yet this Sunday morning, Keelung port suddenly becomes merry: a luxury cruise ship docks, and a group of almost four hundred American homosexuals walk on land.
The 30,777 ton ‘Azamara Quest’ set sail from Shanghai for an 11-day journey. The organizer, a Californian based gay and lesbian tour operator, claims the journey to be the first gay cruise in history that took off from China. The passengers were brought to Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the final destination will be Hong Kong. Weeks before the Azamara Quest set sail, the event received broad coverage by the Asian media.
“Several members of the gay group told me that they didn’t feel respected elsewhere on this trip”, says Chou Yi-hua, director of Keelung port’s Tourist Service Center without elaborating. “We aim at allowing the visitors to experience Taiwan’s diversity and tolerance.”
Having set foot on Taiwanese soil, the gay men in their early 30ies who are mostly from New York and San Francisco were greeted with a Taiwanese dance troupe and senior citizens who work at the port as volunteers. Piles of ‘special’ maps and guide brochures were handed out to find Taipei’s bars, nightclubs and restaurants that are popular with the local gay scene.
Not surprisingly, the arrival of the ‘Love Boat’, as the Azamara Quest was called by the Korean media, has been much anticipated by Taiwanese gay groups. “The arrival of the Azamara Quest is good news for Taiwan’s gay rights campaign”, said Lu Hsin-chieh, spokeswoman of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association prior to the ship’s docking at Keelung port. “In recent years, Taiwan’s gays have gradually become more visible to the society.”
The term Tongzhi the group carries in its name means ‘comrade’ to mainland Chinese, but in Taiwan, it is commonly used to refer to gays and lesbians.
Taiwan sexologist and writer Hsu You-sheng explained in an interview the impression the docking of the Azamara Quest is likely to make on the Taiwanese society: “Most of these homosexuals come in couples. That shows that homosexuals are not sex perverts but are people who can form steady relationships.”
For Asian standards, Taiwan has liberal policies towards the lesbian and gay communities. Polls showed that in the eyes of 75% of the Taiwanese public homosexual relations were acceptable. The Taiwan Pride gay parade is annually held in Taipei, and last year 25,000 took part, making it the largest such gathering in Asia. Another sign of Taiwan’s social progressivism is that in 2003 the government planned to introduce same-sex marriage. However, the proposals never became law, and Taiwan’s gay rights activists still continue their fight for equal rights.
On Sunday afternoon the hundreds of queer visitors from the US were scheduled as a group to visit the places foreign tourists to Taipei usually see. There was the National Palace Museum which harbors the Chinese Emperors’ collection of art, the Chiang Kai-sheck Memorial Hall and of course Taipei’s landmark, the Taipei 101. The program for Sunday night however was left blank, but to individually plan those hours, the ‘special’ maps earlier received at Keelung port came in handy.
There are places like the Café Dalida which advertises its ‘real’ foreign friendly reception; there’s Fresh, the most popular gay club in town which also emphasizes that English is spoken. Most of Taipei’s gay and lesbian bars are found in a cluster around the Red Theatre Plaza in the crowded Ximen district. “Many rainbow flags will clearly show you the way”, read the brochures given to the Azamara Quest passengers.
On Tuesday Hong Kong will be the luxury cruise ship’s last port of call. From there most of the passengers will travel back to the US by air.
How the passengers themselves evaluated their East Asia experience they paid from US$2000 for an interior cabin room to US$7000 for a penthouse for becomes apparent from web sites that are forum for cruise critique. Steve of Washington DC wrote: “My first gay cruise was such an amazing experience, I’m not sure if anything could ever top that.” According to Tom from Florida, someone doesn’t actually have to be gay to enjoy a trip like that on board of the Azamara Quest. He wrote: “If the destinations are the primary goal, then a gay cruise environment becomes secondary.”
A post on an English-language Korean site, however, makes apparent that not everybody in Asia welcomes gay and lesbian travelers. An anonymous writer leaves a comment that sends a chill up the spine. The post reads: “A ship full of gays in a Korean port? Such a great opportunity for North Korean subs to finally show their military might!